REVERBERATIONS; 'Strindberg and Helium,' a Sweet Flowering of Youthful Creativity




Published: May 28, 2004


Strindberg looks rather like photos of that morose, visionary late-19th-century Swedish playwright and novelist, as rendered by somebody paying homage to the campily creepy cartoons of Edward Gorey. Helium is a little pink round floating balloon, with eyes and eyebrows and a red mouth with little teeth when she smiles and flipper-like wings and tiny feet tucked away like those of a bird in flight.


They are the protagonists of four miniature animated films viewable on the Internet under the title ''Strindberg and Helium.'' In ''Absinthe and Women,'' Strindberg tries to pick up a woman in an opera box; she flees. In ''The Park'' Strindberg wanders among dead leaves, Helium floating helpfully nearby. In the third, ''At Home with the Kids,'' Strindberg finds the cheerful cries and intrusions of children upsetting. In the last, ''Sulphur and Iron,'' he tries to make alchemical gold of those elements, fails and is rewarded by Helium drifting down with a cupcake on her head.


Each film begins with little Helium floating up to Strindberg's cheek and planting a kiss on it, accompanied by the sucking pop sound familiar from all cartoon kisses. Thereafter, Strindberg intones funereal pronouncements like ''the fallen leaves are rotting'' or ''the whole of nature stinks of decomposition and decay'' or ''we are already in hell'' or ''the agony becomes intolerable.'' Cheerful Helium echoes the ends of his sentences, several squeaky octaves up: ''rotting,'' ''hell,'' ''decay, decay.''


I find these films, which can be seen and heard free on, funny and sweet and adorable. They were conceived by two members of a San Francisco comedy troupe called Killing My Lobster, most of whom went to Brown University in the mid-90's. Erin Bradley, who wrote the text, is the voice of Helium, and James Bewley is Strindberg. The films were animated by Eun-Ha Paek, who is part of a computer graphics collective called Milky Elephant, then in San Francisco, now in Brooklyn. Strindberg's words are drawn from his novel ''Inferno'' and his ''Occult Diary.''


Some reasonable (if humorless) people might find ''Strindberg and Helium'' trivial. For me, these films represent a delicious skewering, affectionate and satirical, of European dead-white-male pretensions by American pop culture by way of Japanese anime (its not far from Helium to Kitty, as in Hello, Kitty), with no slight, and all due deference, to Europe, Japan or the United States.


They also seem to encapsulate a lovely image of male-female characteristics and relationships (no matter that Helium might be interpreted in some scholarly quarters as Strindberg's own basso voice jacked up to stratospheric levels by that very gas). It's probably no accident that Ms. Bradley and Mr. Bewley have a comedy act called ''The Man/Woman Show.'' These films contrast male moroseness with chirpy female supportiveness from a decidedly female perspective.


I also love them because they represent something rather wonderful among the Youth of America. This country has a penchant for sweet silliness, like the new sport of extreme ironing. People tend to cling most closely to the art and entertainment of their generation. It's nice to be reminded occasionally, and forcefully, that young creativity is bubbling up all over the map, and not just in San Francisco -- in indie films, in garage rock, in dance, in comedy, in video, in animation.


A lot of this new art is abetted by the Internet, which is both a curse and a blessing, mostly a blessing. It's a curse because people create lovely things like ''Strindberg and Helium,'' post them on a Web site and then -- what? They could get lost.


Except insofar as they may serve as calling cards for commercial work, be it in film or television or rock videos, they don't make much, or any, money. Ms. Paek said on the telephone the other day that while the three creators have vague plans for ''Strindberg and Helium'' sequels, they're too busy with other, presumably more remunerative, projects. At least their site has links to a merchandising arm: you can purchase T-shirts and thong underwear and baby bibs and mugs and mousepads and lunchboxes and Frisbees, all with Strindberg or the cuter Helium or both emblazoned upon them.


In terms of mainstream media attention, these films have been pretty much ignored. There have been short mentions in USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, and that seems to be about it, along with appearances, among many other entries, in a couple of film festivals and museum shows.


But the Internet is a blessing because this kind of work can reach a whole new constituency, on its own terms and its own timetable. It is passed from hand to hand, like a prized secret. Secret sharing. These films came out two years ago but are still percolating through the Web. Google lists almost a thousand sites, 33 pages' worth, nearly all blogs and personal online exchanges. People love these little films and want their friends to know about them. And if newcomers respond to them as I have done, they think kindly of the friends who called the films to their attention.


The Internet (like radio and television before it) has been lamented as a force encouraging the grim atomization of society. Before, legend has it, we happily congregated in cafes and theaters, building communal solidarity. Now, we sit forlornly in front of our monitors, logging on to nastiness. For me, it's just the opposite. Reading books is a solitary activity, and few lament that. The Internet reinforces community; it builds new communities. Just as e-mail has led to a rebirth of the epistolary impulse, the Internet creates new bonds between people who share their passions. Of course, those passions may include darker impulses as well as the utterly innocent ''Strindberg and Helium.'' But that's democracy, the kind we're trying to build worldwide.


So one more thing: It's been sometimes difficult in recent months to feel good about America. One needn't recite the litany of pride, arrogance, stupidity and cruelty. But while wallowing in our well-justified gloom, its salutary to come across something as sunny and sweet as ''Strindberg and Helium.'' It doesn't hurt anything (including Strindberg's august reputation; it may even lead some to ''Miss Julie'' and ''A Dream Play'' and all the rest). It's creative and nurturing, and we need all of that we can get.